Canadian Woodworking

Affective woodworking

Author: Clive Smith
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: October November 2006

Most woodworking projects are three dimensional and therefore present a multi-dimensional experience when we view them.


They provide a different experience of the object, looking at it from different angles. The size, shape and location of the object (which might be a piece of furniture) affect our feelings about that object.

I have discussed in previous articles the idea of inherent beauty. That is, beauty that most people would agree with. We share the experience of beauty, according to our socialization and familiarity with certain styles or forms of objects. We can identify with the shape, size and style of certain familiar objects.


Our consideration of what is beautiful is also effected by workmanship, choice of woods, finish and age or condition of a particular object. Our view of what is beautiful is our personal response to the object.

But the entire issue of beautiful or not, only takes us through a somewhat superficial view of the object. We might find a person’s face beautiful but we seldom visualize the three dimensional bone and muscular structure which supports the skin. Hence, beauty is only skin deep, much the same as the literal thickness of the painting.

In its simplest terms, a painting might be a frame, canvas, paint, and stretchers, but that is not what we see when we look at the painting. The painting may evoke a wide range of emotions and subconscious reactions that are our responses to the painting. These responses are not identically the same in all viewers. Some viewers might be outraged while others are amused by what they see. Everyone will have feelings about the painting, and this is the same with woodworking.

Therefore, beyond the level of beauty, full or not, we must search for our response to the whole object and its presence in our life. Once we finish building and start using a new object, like a piece of furniture, we very quickly take its existence for granted. It is in the space of our daily life but we stop being aware of our response to it. It is seldom that we reacquaint ourselves with how this object is effecting us. Our relationship becomes rote and our responses are relegated to the subconscious. The easiest time to review our feelings is when the piece of furniture is first placed, moved or replaced. For the first two weeks, after either of these events, we are aware of something that is new or changed in our personal space. This object continues to elicit responses until we become familiar with it, or its new location. What kind of feelings can you remember?

Comfort, convenience and location also contribute to our responses. A particular easy chair may evoke a sense of “I will” or “I will not” enjoy relaxing in that chair. Your relationship with using that chair is much more than the presence of the object alone. This relationship starts a history of memories about time spent with that object. Similarly, the location also influences our response to the chair.

Locating the chair in a drafty corner or by a fireplace will obviously determine the type of experience and the memories that go with it. Chairs or seats that are built into bay windows, allow us to use an object while benefiting from a potentially worthwhile view. The combined experience evokes a very strong response from us, because we are responding to two influences at once.

The size, depth, location and operating ease of drawers in a chest of drawers also have this second functional affect on our response. If the drawers stick or jam, or if they are too shallow or narrow; it will evoke a response from us. Are we drawn or attracted to use this object or not? Is it a part of a pleasant experience, or a constant frustration?

The central issue to consider is the feelings that are generated by the space that the object occupies. Is the object foreboding by its projection into a walkway, or does it catch the sunlight at a certain time of day? Is the object robust, sizeable or is it intensely fragile and delicate? Where do we stand in this seemingly unfamiliar territory?

Here is a simple example to illustrate how our woodworking objects affect us.

We are all familiar with the detrimental effects of trying to sell a house that is unfurnished. Prospective purchasers might be attracted to the neighbourhood and even the curb appeal of the house, but cannot come to terms with those empty rooms. Very few people can visualize the use and room sizes, without the reference of furniture, decorations and specific lighting. It could be said that the objects of our life are effecting the very space in which we live. These spatial relationships are a celebration of our choices and circumstances, during a certain time period of our lives. Our general attachment to these memories (and objects) suggests an intrinsic value in objects that we keep around us.

This is great news for woodworkers, because it means that we have an opportunity to provide objects that will elicit feelings. As woodworkers, we not only produce objects made of wood, we create the opportunity for the very feelings which comprise our lives.

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